"Rocket to the Moon"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
Long Wharf’s “Rocket to the Moon,” under Daniel Fish’s direction, puts a new polish on an old chestnut. Clearly this particular play of the Depression years is both dated and a lesser Clifford Odets work, in fact a recycling of his finer and more famous earlier drama, “Awake and Sing.”
The same characters reappear, albeit in a somewhat different setting. “Awake and Sing” was the story of a Bronx Jewish family struggling to put bread on the table while yearning toward higher aspirations. “Rocket to the Moon” offers a similar struggle between dreams and survival skills. This time it is a dentist, his wife and his colleagues. The formidable—and eminently practical--matron of “Awake and Sing” has become the dentist’s wife, and the frustrated hero is not the Bronx family’s son, but the dentist himself.
“Rocket” deals with the dentist’s involvement with his young nubile assistant. Cleo, the assistant, is every man’s desire incarnate, and in fact three male characters in the play vie for her attentions. But Ben, the dentist, a wimp dominated by his wife, appears to be her choice. The main conflict lies not between characters, but within Ben himself.
Although “Rocket to the Moon” is a less satisfying play than other dramas by Clifford Odets (1906-1963), there is no denying his importance in theater history. This playwright of the 1930s wielded an enormous influence over the burgeoning theater of realism. And in creating characters which were torn between practical considerations and their dreams, he influenced Arthur Miller and many subsequent writers. He brought the Depression years into sharp focus, and his gritty, impassioned dramas gave the Group Theatre, with its social, political, and theatrical messages, the material needed to take its place in the sun.
This production is a fresh approach to “Rocket,” in terms of design and staging. In particular, Andrew Lieberman’s slowly revolving set is remarkable, offering an ever-changing view in each scene. (One might well be on top of the Marriott Hotel, with a 360-degree vista of Manhattan.) But it is all in Dr. Stark’s waiting room, providing a different image for each scene. The set is a room within a room, complete with walls, floor and ceiling. One sees into the room at different angles, as the story unfolds.
The stage design is matched by solid direction and generally good casting. But it is the supporting actors, not the lead, who are strongest. David Chandler, as the dentist at the center of the play, is disappointingly flat. David Margulies, playing the elderly father who courts Cleo, runs away with the show. He is fortunate to have the play’s sharpest and funniest lines, lines which he delivers with superb effect. Louisa Krause creates a fully-dimensional impassioned Cleo, and Danny Mastrogiorgio, as one of her suitors, is another compelling presence on stage.
“Rocket to the Moon” is not calculated to create new Odets fans. Nonetheless this is a solid, innovatively-staged production. In terms of theater history Long Wharf Theatre does an excellent service in bringing the era and the playwright to life.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 3, 2006